After 30 years, Houston’s Catastrophic Theater is still pushing boundaries

The city’s longtime avant-garde standard-bearer opens “Waiting for Godot” this fall.

The folks behind Catastrophic Theatre know a thing or two about life’s absurdity, both onstage and off. As Houston’s longtime avant-garde standard-bearer—the company’s new production of Waiting for Godot, opening Sept. 29, will be its eighth go-around with Beckett—Catastrophic likes to push the boundaries of theater form. This can mean staging works by revered experimentalists, like Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and Richard Foreman’s Eddie Goes to Poetry City. It can also mean premiering a multimedia, pop culture hall-of-mirrors freakout like Brian Jucha’s They Do Not Move (which, not coincidentally, takes its title from the most famous stage direction in Godot). “We have never once programmed to box office,” says Catastrophic founding artistic director Jason Nodler, sitting alongside producing artistic director Tamarie Cooper at a Heights coffee shop. “Having the freedom to fail, to take those risks, is important in developing and being able to bring those new voices or lesser heard voices to the community.”

Cooper and Nodler are the odd couple that keeps Catastrophic moving, in defiance of Beckett’s stage direction. They met as students at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where they dated each other’s best friends. They ended up doing a lot of things together, including working at the Houston punk club Catal Hüyük and running Houston’s Jerry Brown for President chapter in 1992. (The campaign wasn’t exactly flush with cash; the candidate ended up sleeping on a futon on Nodler’s floor). Nodler has a brooding, cerebral quality; Cooper is more expressive and outgoing, qualities on full display in the raucous vaudeville revue shows she produces at Catastrophic. (This season’s, Tamarie’s Texas Toast, premieres next June).

Nodler likes to joke that Cooper is “pathologically well-adjusted.” The phrase came up recently when Cooper told her Nodler that she was basically OK living with the tenets of existentialism. “But I’m OK with them, too,” Nodler says. “I’m pretty sure it’s true that we’re the only animals that are keenly aware of our mortality and in order not to go mad, we’re in constant denial of it. We have to push it out of our hands. You can’t think about it all the time. And yet maybe it’s the most important constant of human existence.”

Cooper: “I think that’s one of the things that draws you to doing Beckett, because he’s one of the playwrights that actually speaks to that in his work.”

Nodler: “There’s this great need to distract oneself from what’s going on.”

Imagine this conversation extending over a 30-year period and you’ll have an idea of Catastrophic’s history. Originally named Infernal Bridegroom, the company has grown over the years along with its audience, which knows well by now what to expect – and not to expect – when it enters the black box theater at MATCH that Catastrophic calls home. “We don’t do journalistic theater,” Nodler says. “I like to say art is not the news. It’s not the story of what happened. It’s the story of how it felt. If a play doesn’t at some point make me cry or make me laugh, it’s off the list. Our work is not intended to make you think. It’s intended to make you feel something.”

Away from the stage, the predominant feeling at Catastrophic has often been pain. Nodler almost died a few years back of complications from Lyme’s Disease. Earlier this year, on the eve of presenting Cleansed (the writer of which, Sarah Kane, committed suicide in 1999), Catastrophic reeled from the death of 23-year-old lead actor Zachariah Mustafa. The show was canceled, and will now be presented later this season. Compared to such tragedy, the wave of COVID-19 that pushed back the season-opening production of Godot is but a flesh wound.

“We have lost many dear friends and performers over our 30-year history,” Cooper says. “Too many. It really is like a family. We lean on our family to get through the catastrophes.”

It’s little wonder Catastrophic keeps returning to Beckett, a playwright concerned not just with life’s absurdity but also its temporality. Last season the company produced Happy Days, which found Cooper, as Winnie, buried to her waist in dirt, not quite in the grave but pretty close. In Waiting for Godot, two men, Vladimir and Estragon, remain in stasis awaiting the invisible, God-like Godot, who, of course, never arrives. Nodler likes to paraphrase the playwright and Beckett aficionado Will Eno, who says Beckett’s plays will become irrelevant when people stop dying.

But no two Catastrophic performances are ever the same. Longtime Catastrophic do-everything artist (and Godot star) Greg Dean has likened the Catastrophic process to a palimpsest, a piece of parchment on which something is written and erased and written over again and erased again. It’s an approach the actors welcome. “We leave it open for everyone, as long as they’re approaching it with honesty and however they’re feeling and how that’s coming out, and they’re actively listening to their scene partner,” Cooper says. “You are left with little bits of debris from each experience.”

This is how Catastrophic stays fresh. And alive. The avant-garde’s mandate, after all, is to advance forward. They do, indeed, move.